Reception Theory

By James Warner

Is there intelligence out there, or will we always be alone?

Once, I longed to make contact.

I felt a thrill each time the radio telescope in our observatory picked up an unexplained fast burst, that buzz of are-we-the-first-ever-to-connect-with-an-extraterrestrial?

An observatory is a space for orienting ourselves toward the unknown. I tried to be approachable and responsive to graduate students at all times, an attitude which, in the current ideological climate, proved open to misinterpretation by women like Ms. Dannery.

It was she who located a narrowband signal of artificial origin amid the background chatter. This turned out to be only leakage from the staff room’s microwave but, for reasons too technical to go into in the context of this public apology, establishing this took some time. So I could help Ms. Dannery glean perspective on her disappointment—as a graduate student, she was not yet inured to misidentifications of this kind, frequent in our field—we spent an evening in an East Palo Alto bar where, she attests, I plied her with alcohol before driving her to her apartment.

After she became incapacitated—incapable of consent according to our university’s latest stipulations—she reports me “kissing her after she blacked out.” Her claim surfaced only in the wake of other denunciations, and my lawyers have already threatened her with defamation litigation.

Ms. Chandrasekar’s case is less straightforward. Months ago we thought we’d intercepted an alien radio bulletin together, and in her excitement it is not surprising that, as a mere postdoc, she became fixated on the alpha male who was her mentor and role model. There is only so long a man and a woman can peer at the cosmos together without developing an erotic bond, a simple physiological fact that somehow eludes the puritanical social justice warriors of our campus. Their “consent codes,” incidentally, remind me of UN protocols on how to respond to an eventual interstellar greeting—I have a copy here on my desk alongside my migraine pills. UN protocols demand no response be made until after international consultations, and in the same spirit the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office just faxed me “ground guidelines” regarding my future encounters with female colleagues, requiring me to clear all communications in advance with the Professional Conduct Review Committee.

While Ms. Chandrasekar hasn’t gone public with her side of the story, her attitude to me cooled once the apparent signal we found turned out just to be noise emitted by a pulsar. Another factor may have been her resentment over not being invited with me to the Honolulu conference on the study of exoplanets.

As the conference date drew closer, she practically stopped speaking to me. Ms. Chandrasekar’s silences have never been easy to interpret. The gulfs between her words may say more than the words themselves.

Leaving her to oversee the calibration of our instruments, I took a flight to Honolulu, where I concede I may have behaved indiscreetly and taken risks. Even so, Professor Hazazi’s crusade against me has received attention primarily because of the number of Instagram followers she has. She called the shirt I wore the evening I arrived—a classic work of tentacle porn showing a woman multiply penetrated by various conjectural life forms—“professionally inappropriate,” although such costumes are ubiquitous at astrobiology mixers.

After a few drinks, I walked by myself to the beach, where I tried to conceive of ways of sending messages through the waves, yet having them be understandable when they arrived at a further shore. I bodysurfed for a while, communing with the mauve horizon. It is easy in Hawaii to feel one inhabits a biophilic cosmos—I swam out to the reef and stood, feeling the coral polyps underfoot and wondering which of the star systems overhead housed inhabitants capable of looking out for us. I was in the prodromal stage preceding a migraine, hyperactive and a little lightheaded.

The conference itself was a letdown. As I gave my presentation the next morning, the birdsong felt like syrup pouring into my brain—I was by now also a little hungover. My topic was the search for unearthly technology. Could the debris from wholesale mining operations around another star be detected telescopically? Would forensic clues come from identifying a chemical disequilibrium in an asteroid belt, caused by the extraction of specific elements or an unusual temperature distribution due to quantities of dust from mining?

At all times, I urged, we should be searching for evidence whose actual form we can only guess at. We must be alert to approaches that take forms we are unable to anticipate.

After my talk, a professor called Snell waylaid me. From archival data she had determined a G2V type star was dimming inexplicably. Were residents of the stellar system in question constructing hardware large enough to intercept a substantial amount of their sun’s output? She wondered if it would be premature to publish her findings.

Whenever I suspected mankind had a new lead, back in that halcyon time before Their signal, my world seemed to expand. I can hardly fathom how naïve I was.

There’s a fine line between discussion of research methodology and foreplay, which makes my reaction to Professor Snell defensible. Among sophisticates, it is accepted that the eroticization of aspects of one’s relationship with junior colleagues serves a pedagogical purpose. But this conference had its very own anti-harassment policy—thousands of words on power dynamics, abuses in academic spaces, and the like—and it is possible that by these rules I was somehow blameworthy for gripping Professor Snell by the ears. Just then a gathering of cranks—these events attract such people, unfortunately—interrupted to accuse us of covering up the existence of the numerous aliens already actually among us. “Did you know the mantis-people are everywhere?” one asked.

Subsequently, Professor Snell and I sat by one of the hotel pools and drank four Mai Tais between us—actually I drank three and a half of them—and Professor Snell herself has in the end declined to press any charges regarding the high jinks that followed.

Some untenured women like being affectionately play-choked by a hierarchical superior. Others do not, and have merely to point this out. One would hope scientists are adults—so why play games? As for the dimming of the G2V type star, several different telescopes were used to collect the data in question, meaning there were precision limits that needed to be taken into account. It has since been determined the apparent dimming was caused by changes in instrumentation, not in the brightness of the star.

Late that afternoon, Professor Hazazi made her presentation. She addressed the “social framing” of our search for extraterrestrial messages. She argued that a preponderance of privileged white males in our field narrows our sense of what to look for, and feared we might corrupt aliens with our binary gender-essentialism and information colonialism. To show there were no hard feelings, despite my “heckling” of Professor Hazazi during her speech—her term for my employment of the Socratic method—I brought her a Lava Flow, and joked that she might be an extradimensional shapeshifting mantis-person, sent to abduct me for interbreeding.

Sipping her cocktail, Professor Hazazi suggested that, being still beyond confirmation or denial as objective fact, aliens had taken on the character of a projection of the patriarchy. After saying “patriarchy,” she paused a moment and amended this to “cissexist heteropatriarchy.” In addition to her other issues, Professor Hazazi has a low tolerance for alcohol and, rather redundantly, defines herself as a “survivor.”

She claimed my desperation to find aliens connoted an inability to be present, or to acknowledge my complicity in the alienation of others. Taking this for a good sign, I invited her to take a swim with me.

Our hotel had seven water slides, and we rode on four of them. Strolling between the luau torches and palm trees, I talked of my search for bright infrared sources in space, at a wavelength of about ten microns, that might indicate waste heat from astroengineering projects. I caught Professor Hazazi by the arm to point out a toad she was about to step on.

I suggested that if an extraterrestrial supercivilization used its sun as a dumping ground for radioactive waste, we might expect its stellar spectrum to contain detectable quantities of praseodymium and neodymium. I formulated techniques for scrying complex organic chiral molecules in interstellar space, periodically interrupted by her coy claims that I was “mansplaining.”

The cranks ambushed us at the entrance to my building, foisting pamphlets on us about government cover-ups and anal probing. In the corridor leading to my room, we passed Professor Snell.

Not that it matters now, but was there something in the glances the two women exchanged that prompted Professor Snell to embark on the destruction of my reputation?

In my room, Professor Hazazi finished her second Lava Flow, and told me she identified as gender-fluid. I rubbed aloe vera on her blisters, surprised an Arab woman could get so sunburned. Only after she passed out on my futon, hair splayed across the pillow, did I become aware of the texts sent me by Ms. Chandrasekar.

In my absence, our automatic laser pulse detector system back at the observatory had received an anomalous brief-but-powerful pulse from a planetary system near the galactic center. Our optical search had until lately been even more susceptible than our radio search to false alarms, sometimes from muon showers, sometimes from radioactive decay within the sensors themselves. But our new systems supposedly made errors impossible, requiring photons to hit three different detectors within a billionth of a second for any result to be displayed.

Suddenly all I wanted was to return home. The very fact of my being a thousand miles from our observatory may have helped convince me this was no glitch.

Ms. Chandrasekar had become the first human to stumble on an interstellar beacon.

I opened the sliding door and went out onto the balcony, my neck prickling as if I was under remote surveillance. From Ms. Chandrasekar’s texts, it appeared They were firing a high-powered laser with pulse durations on the order of five nanosec, detectably brighter than Their host star for that ultra-brief time period.

A directional signal implied They had reason to think we were here.

My fear our civilization would destroy itself before we heard from Them was giving way to a fear the media would credit this discovery to a postdoc.

I took a photograph of myself and sent it to Professor Hazazi to remember me by. Professor Hazazi is not a socially gifted individual—our discipline attracts many who are somewhere on the autistic spectrum—but by retweeting this photograph of me, naked, looking expectantly upwards, Professor Hazazi inadvertently dramatized our species’ then-isolated predicament.

We were luckier than I thought. Never again will we toil happily in uninterrupted solitude.

I had not yet begun to fear Them.

Barely pausing to admire the sky’s sinking striations of maroon and lilac, I dressed and packed and sped to the lobby to call an Uber. From Ms. Chandrasekar’s next text, perused on the way to the airport, it seemed the pulse had already stopped. Perhaps it had been blocked by interstellar dust—this is a liability of highly directional transmission techniques such as lasers.

Around the time I bought a new ticket, on that day’s last flight to San Jose Airport, Professor Snell began posting about me to the Astrobiology Forum. Her first post did not include my name, but contained enough details to identify me. The envious always jump on board when a successful man is pilloried, and expressions of support poured in. One woman asked Professor Snell point blank if I was who she was talking about, and she went offline for a while. That she now calls me a “pathological monster” should be all you need to know to assess her overall credibility.

Any overture whatsoever carries the risk of misinterpretation, but logic hardly matters once a coordinated smear campaign is underway.  Any interpersonal conflict people remembered experiencing with me could now be redefined as “consistent with rumors we’ve been hearing for some time,” and old professional scores could be settled, as the forum “blew up.” The way I addressed women was demeaning, I often rubbed their body parts, I was guilty of “creating a poisoned environment,” etc. Professor Hazazi woke up, read Professor Snell’s post and the comments on it, and retweeted the photo I’d sent her. Getting “caught up in the likes,” she sought attention through character assassination, accusing me of “dehumanizing” her.

My wife is resolutely standing by me throughout all this.

I hid in the plane’s restroom for most of the journey, afraid someone would deduce the existence of an earth-shattering discovery from the scientific glee in my eyes. That’s where I was crouching when the hashtag #MakeWilloughbyResign was first coined, and by the time the plane touched down this hashtag was “trending.” Irony of ironies, it was a “slow news day.”

Nothing could then have been further from my mind than sexual politics—I was hungry for proof we inhabit a fertile cosmos. Around dawn I reached the observatory, banging on the door while demanding to be let in, and wolfing down magnesium tablets.

A sprinkler was discharging its spray. A beetle crawled on my shoe, waving its antennae, trying to input information. I had trouble focusing on it because I was hallucinating a jagged arc of light, part of my encroaching migraine aura.

When the door opened, the receptionist looked at me as if nothing was wrong. I told her I wasn’t available to talk to reporters. As I joined Ms. Chandrasekar at the console, she was still in the dark about my ongoing virtual crucifixion, and Their signal hadn’t yet resumed.

But the migraine shut my thoughts down completely for a while, and my next clear memory is of the signal surging in once again.

These light pulses were only nanoseconds long—were we beholding an unambiguous biosignature? Had we detected light pollution from an alien megastructure so complex it seemed intelligent, perhaps so complex it was intelligent? My intuition told me these were emissions from a macro-engineered planetary-sized outpost, but my faith in my own intuition was already waning.

My headache still disrupting my concentration, I went online and read Professor Snell’s post for the first time. I’ve learned since she has a borderline personality disorder, and has made allegations in the past that were discredited, and I reiterate that she does not intend to press legal charges.

After Professor Hazazi retweeted my photo, Ms. Dannery’s reaction was next to go live—upping the ante on the professors, she bypassed the forum entirely, publishing instead on a popular news website. Following a strict template, her article starts out as an odds-defying personal story about transcending the hardship of an Appalachian background—foreclosures, meth addicts, old-time religion, etc. This preamble is followed by an exhaustive account of my driving her home whilst she was catatonic. She claims I bit her hair, something I don’t remember, or even see the point of. Finally she extrapolates from her demonized portrayal of me to condemn the system as a whole. We need to deconstruct the fear of powerful men, she concludes. Men need to be called out when they destroy the mental stability of female graduate students.

By now, I am avoiding even eye contact with observatory staff. I have thrown away the turquoise alien-shaped dildo I had intended to give Ms. Chandrasekar as a gift from Oahu.

Social predators like Willoughby need to be excluded from all community activities as a precondition for healing, Ms. Dannery typed. We need to take a stand against this pattern of institutional suppression of women’s voices.

It’s a problem for all first-contact scenarios that the transmitter and receiver must be designed completely independently, by creatures ignorant of each other’s basic anatomy and psychology. How do we tell a biological from an abiological rhythm? Why would we even imagine communication means to Them what it means to us? Is this pattern They transmitted an indictment, a kind of laughter, a confession? Is it an uncorroborated anonymous allegation, or a routine service announcement detached from its original content? What if They are fleeing from a form of oppression so terrible they have no choice but to replicate it against us?

Everything about Their signal feels wrong. At one point, I actually threw up in my mouth. It repeats itself inexactly yet recognizably, like variations on a theme. Each fragment is a blow—is this only because of my migraine-enhanced light sensitivity, or are They pummeling us deliberately? Perhaps intelligence itself is a horrifying mutation that occurs rarely and only arises in starkly incompatible forms.

All I’m apologizing for, in this public statement, is my complicity in finding Them.

The dean has emailed me a document to sign, acknowledging complaints have been lodged, and summoning me before the Professional Conduct Review Committee. By the time those “ground guidelines” from the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office erupted from the fax machine just now, protesters were waving #MakeWilloughbyResign placards outside the observatory, although the purpose of painting a hashtag on a placard remains unclear to me.

Even if I am the victim of these people’s psychosexually-starved fantasies, I’ve clearly “lost control of the narrative.” Ms. Chandrasekar, absurdly, spent the afternoon grading papers. I sense she enjoys the power she has over me now. Apparently she advised the dean to give me another chance. She is perhaps thinking that, if she goes public with the news of our liaison, my situation will become untenable, that if she demands to be named as a coauthor of an article announcing our find, it will be hard for me to say no.

My wife says the neighbors are sticking by me, which is bizarre, as I barely know our neighbors. In a postdromal state now, I drift in a state of mental fog and cognitive impairment, yet decisions must be made. Compared to Their message from our galaxy’s remote past, from their all-consuming inferno that appears to us as a feeble pinprick, the most challenging of all former texts is a cakewalk.

“We should claim we were wrong,” I told Ms. Chandrasekar, “that it was just another muon shower. We should cover this up, call it another sensor malfunction.”

Her responding silence was galactic in its inscrutability. Does she not see They are monsters?

Around dusk my headache magically disappeared. Ms. Chandrasekar asked, her fingertips touching the small of my back, if I could drive her back to her place—my car is still in the faculty parking area—but I pretended not to hear her.

She is gone now. The protesters are apparently conducting an all-night vigil. I drink coffee from the microwave and study those UN response protocols. I called Professor Hazazi, to suggest collaborating on a paper about reasons not to decode messages from space, but she hung up on me.

Perhaps it would be better to let Ms. Chandrasekar write the paper, to let her take all the blame for our discovery, to keep my name out of this. What I do not understand is how I will ever leave the observatory again. Otherwise I’d announce my resignation right away. But without this building, I’d feel too exposed. How can the demonstrators bear to stand there, exposed to the monstrously ambiguous, polysemic sky?

I fear abduction. There’s no way back, now Their message is triggering and trolling me, a boundary violation nullifying my dreams, eating away at my sense of self, its unearthly pattern shattering my very identity.

Astronomers no longer look through telescopes much—everything’s digitalized now—but I just climbed to the top of the observatory and placed my eye against an eyepiece. The chanting of the demonstrators is softer from here, so I can concentrate on the reaches between the stars. Once I thought it had to be a matter of scanning in the right direction, at the right time, at the right frequency, with the right algorithm. The first time I looked through a telescope, a Christmas present when I was five, I couldn’t see anything, and burst into tears.

But now I want the protection of that lonely void, to believe we’re still concealed from scrutiny, that this world can again be a safe space.

I look very closely.


James Warner (www.jameswarner.net) is the author of fictions published in ZYZZYVA, Ninth Letter, Santa Monica Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. He is also the author of the novel All Her Father’s Guns published by Numina Press, and a co-moderator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.